Green is the word

Sustainability is fast becoming a vital issue in HE. But how to ensure it has substance and isn't just shallow rhetoric? Alex Diggins reports

Sustainability is an unavoidable issue these days. From the Blue Planet II-provoked panic over plastics to the furore over Donald Trump pulling America out of the Paris Climate Change Treaty, issues around sustainability feature on the news almost every single day. Unsurprisingly, given this context, it is also a major concern for universities – cropping up in their marketing materials as much as it does their curricula offerings. It also seems that students are clamouring for the issue to be embedded at their institutions: an NUS study found that, for seven years in a row, 80% of students reported that they wanted their institutions to do more around sustainability, and 60% wanted to learn about the topic.

Further action around sustainability in higher education institutions seems inevitable. However, ‘sustainability’ is not a stable concept; rather, as Eleanor Simes, Sustainability Officer at City University, argued: “The idea is evolving. Lots of different elements are being brought in.” Dr Peter Rands of Canterbury Christ Church University, whose SU won an NUS ‘Green Impacts’ award for sustainability in 2017, agreed. “Sustainability is a very broad and little understood concept.” Another potential concern is that the vagueness of the term allows exploitation: unscrupulous institutions scatter the word liberally through press releases and policy documents yet fail to effect lasting change. Universities, then, must navigate these concerns whilst orientating themselves, and crucially their graduates, towards a future that is certain to be radically different from the world today.

Long-term vision

“It’s about culture change”, claimed Professor James Longhurst, Assistant Vice-Chancellor of the Environment and Sustainability at University of the West of England (UWE), winner of two of the prestigious international Green Gown awards in 2017. “We have to remember that a graduate leaving university this summer has about 60 years of productive life ahead of them. We want to produce graduates who are not only able to succeed in their discipline, in their chosen career, but who are sustainably literate, who are going to go off and support a more sustainable future.” UWE’s approach to achieving this ambition is to focus on their students: embedding sustainability in the curriculum; encouraging student-driven action around the issue; and integrating it into the everyday student experience.

Universities are in a unique position, Professor Longhurst argued, to implement meaningful sustainability policies because “we’re knowledge-led institution[s]”. Research and teaching must thus be at the forefront of the drive for a more sustainable institution. The rigour of the research students and staff produce can then feed directly into an institution’s sustainability polices, bolstering their credibility and avoiding allegations of ‘green-washing’. At UWE, for instance, a campaign for the use of sustainable sources of palm oil in campus canteens arose directly from academic and student research in Indonesia, where they witnessed first-hand the impacts on biodiversity of industrial palm oil plantations. The initiative was a success and the University has since committed to only using RSPO-certified products by 2020.

We have to remember that a graduate leaving university this summer has about 60 years of productive life ahead of them

UWE’s Sustainability and Governance Board – a joint staff/student body which incorporates members of the senior executive – “allows these kind of campaigns to flourish,” says Tom Ball, Green-Team Coordinator for UWE’s Student Union. Its cross-sectional nature encourages students to feel they have a voice and can influence institutional policy-making; this agency further promotes “the engagement of students with sustainability in action”. Results of this engagement can be seen all over the campus: students recently undertook a ‘Plastic Detox Week’ and ‘Bring your own bowl’ nights, where students come together to feast on edible leftovers, are common. Campaigns like this raise awareness of vital environmental issues – we waste £13bn of food annually in the UK – whilst fostering a sense of community at the University. “It’s easy to get caught up in knee-jerk reactions,” says Professor Longhurst. “But as universities we’ve got to understand that we’re multi-million-pound purchasing entities. That carries responsibility.”

Students at the centre

A focus on listening to student concerns and encouraging sustainable innovation among students is also on display at Nottingham Trent University (NTU), Winner of the 2017 Green Gown award for Employability and Third on the People and Planet University League, a leading student environmental body. Their flagship policy is the Sustainability in Practice Award, an accreditation that all students, regardless of discipline, can take, using the credits as part of their overall degree qualification. Linked to the NUS’s ‘Green Impacts’ scheme, the award has been running since 2013 and students can take the four-session online course at their own pace, fitting it around existing study commitments. “Over 1,200 students have completed the course to date,” said Vanessa Odell, Education for Sustainable Development Co-ordinator. The course is important, she said, because it allows students to think about sustainability holistically: as embedded within their academic study, but also critical to how they live their lives. It prompts them to “reflect on our connection to the natural world, each other, and to ourselves”. Again, as with UWE’s sustainable palm oil declaration, the award came about through student action: BA Fashion students petitioned to include it on the syllabus, gathering 34 signatures. Such initiatives reflect a growing awareness, among institutions and students alike, that every aspect of our modern lives has environmental and ethical impacts; nowhere is this truer than in fast fashion: the industry is estimated to be the world’s second most polluting, just after oil and gas.

Such initiatives reflect a growing awareness, among institutions and students alike, that every aspect of our modern lives has environmental and ethical impacts

Universities are also realising that alumni are not just ambassadors for the institution’s teaching and research, they are ambassadors for its sustainable policies as well. It is a realisation that underpins the educational philosophy of NTU’s business school. As Dr Muhammed Mazhar, Sustainability Coordinator for the business school, explained, “We’re producing future business leaders, therefore we need to emphasise the importance of sustainability and ethics from the first day.” The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs) – 17 ambitious global goals, established in 2015, ranging from eradication of poverty to climate action – are at the heart of the business school’s curriculum. During their courses, students are encouraged to reflect on how the SGDs could play into both their research and lifestyles. This embedded approach ensures that “we have a simultaneously bottom-up as well as top-down viewpoint”, said Dr Mazhar. “But ultimately it depends on the teaching. The ability to take it out of the classroom and open it up to everyone is essential.”

Global problem, global solutions

The UN’s SGDs are global in ambition and therefore it is not only UK universities that are recognising the centrality of sustainability to HE. Les Roches Global Hospitality education, an international institution with campuses in Switzerland, Spain and China, places significant emphasis on sustainability as a way to future-proof graduates’ careers. “It’s crucial that we prepare students with the skills to understand their environmental impacts and implement sustainable practices on a wider scale,” explained Dr Stuart Jauncey, Managing Director. He is adamant that sustainability has wider implications, beyond burnishing an institution’s eco-credentials. “It’s about guaranteeing an organisation’s survival in an increasingly competitive world and taking care of your employees, resources and customers.”

To build the leaders of tomorrow, listen to the students of today

As at the other institutions, students are driving this awareness as well as providing the oversight to ensure that rhetoric matches reality. Les Roches are currently working towards ISO 4001 sustainable certification and “student teams will be responsible for identifying the processes that we need to meet this global certification”, assured Dr Jauncey. As with the other institutions, students are at the heart of sustainable decision-making. Pupils at the institute have formed a Green Club to advise management about environmental issues. Les Roches’ Roots restaurant, an onsite fine-dining experience, additionally places great emphasis on using local produce as a crucial aspect of the curriculum. Lastly, an inaugural Sustainable Tourism for Good conference is planned for Summer 2019, organised and run by students.

An approach to sustainability which places student understanding and enthusiasm at the heart of an institution’s policy is, then, essential to ensuring that ‘sustainability’ has substance. Students and recent graduates are amongst the most idealistic and engaged citizens in our society.

They are an invaluable resource for building a fairer, more sustainable future; universities underestimate their concerns and contributions at their peril. To build the leaders of tomorrow, listen to the students of today.